First Class Railway Mutton Curry

[A]: “The story goes that an English army officer, while travelling in a train, became ravenously hungry. He followed his nose to the pantry car, where a spicy mutton curry was simmering. He was offered a taste, whereupon he burnt his tongue because of the spices. The helpful cook reduced the pungency with some coconut milk and served it up. From that day on, this has become a staple on all first-class compartments of the train.”

The Railways have remained an integral part of life in India in spite of development in other modes of transport. It is still largely state-owned although there are many private contractors who work for the Railways. It remains the largest employer in the country and eighth largest in the world generating more than 1.4 million direct jobs. It is a different type of experience to take a long train journey in India. Some trains travel for a couple of days calling at very few stations in between. It is a good way to take in the regional variations both in terms of changing landscape outside the window, and the changing co-passengers inside the compartment. The Railways are truly like the arteries and veins of the country.

First class in the context of a train is easy to understand. But first-class can mean a lot of things in Indian English. A question like “how are you doing today?” can receive a response as “first-class!”. Similarly “how is the weather where you are?” can be “first-class” too! So I wouldn’t be surprised if a “first-class” railway mutton curry was used to imply a “good” dish, rather than the exclusivity of an upper class kitchen in the trains.

The original recipe uses goat meat (called mutton in India) but I have used Welsh lamb shanks, which probably work just as well, if not better. Unlike the negative PR that mature sheep meat (mutton) finds here, in India goat meat (mutton) is highly desirable. I had heard about this particular dish along with the associated story, but have never cooked it before. Last year Rick Stein had been to India on his journey to find the perfect curry and my recipe here is largely borrowed from his book with just a few variations.

I have used 6 lamb shanks for cooking. Assuming we serve 1 lamb shank per person, the quantities here are for 6 portions. This is a slow cooked dish and takes at least 3 hours in the oven. On top of that the lamb shanks need to be marinated overnight. So, it needs a bit of preparation to get this dish going. But once it is in the oven, there is not much to do. Therefore it is easy to make, if other work can be planned around it.


For the marinade:

15 gm ginger, finely grated

15 gm cloves garlic (about 3), finely crushed

1/4 tsp turmeric

2 tbsp thick Greek-style yoghurt

6 lamb shanks

For the curry:

100 gm cashew nuts

300 gm tomatoes

2 tbsp ghee (a healthier option could be 100 ml vegetable oil)

8 cm piece of cinnamon stick

4 cloves

7 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed with a rolling pin

1/4 tsp ground mace

1 large red onion, diced

1 tsp salt

100 ml water

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tbsp of hot Kashmiri chilli powder

1 tsp turmeric

2 tsp garam masala

15 gm ginger, finely grated

15 gm cloves garlic (about 3)

2 Indian bay leaves

160 ml coconut cream


Combine all the marinade ingredients and coat the lamb shanks uniformly. Leave to marinate overnight in the fridge.

In a very small pan take the tomatoes and cashew nuts along with enough water to just cover them. Bring it to the boil on high heat and let it simmer for 5 minutes. At this point the tomato skin would have broken. Take it off the heat and allow it to cool. When it is still warm, place the contents of the pan in a food processor and blend to a smooth purée. Keep it aside for later.

Preheat the oven to 150°C.

In a large, sturdy, oven-proof casserole, melt the ghee on medium-high heat. Add the cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom pods, mace and fry till aromatic. Add the onions and fry for about 10 minutes till the onions turn golden brown. Use the water to de-glaze the bottom of the casserole so that all the stuck bits of onion and whole spices are released from the base. Let the water simmer for a minute.

Stir in the dry spice powders (coriander, chilli, garam masala, turmeric), salt, ginger and garlic into the simmering watery mix in the casserole. Dry spices have a tendency to burn in dry heat. This is the best way to introduce dry spices as the hot water prevents them from burning. When the spices are well mixed, usually after a couple of minutes, bring in the marinated lamb shanks and let them brown on all sides in the spice mix by cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Pour in the cashew nut and tomato purée, bring to simmer and then add the bay leaves. Cover the casserole and place it in the pre-heated oven for 3 hours. The lamb should be tender, the sauce rich and thick when taken out of the oven.

Since there are a lot of whole spices in the sauce, it may be best to separate the meat pieces from the rest of the sauce and sieve the sauce to remove the whole spices. If the sauce is not thick enough, it can be reduced over high heat at this point. Once the desired consistency is achieved, the meat needs to be reintroduced in the sauce along with the coconut cream. Stir, but do not heat any more. Leave to rest for 5 minutes before serving with plain rice and naan breads.